The five decade-long tradition of Duncan family dominance in Tennessee’s 2nd District will end with the 115th Congress. With an ethics probe clouding his legacy and retirement closing in, Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. looked back to another time he thought his career might be ending.
In 2002, as fear and speculation swirled, Duncan sided with just a handful of other House Republicans, including Amo Houghton of New York, in voting against the Iraq War. He knew it could be political suicide.
“I just became convinced that these wars were more about money and power than they were about any real threat to the U.S.,” he said.
Duncan’s skepticism of intervention had begun 10 years earlier with the Persian Gulf War.
While he’d heard all the top officials at that time talk of the urgent threat posed by Saddam Hussein, what Duncan witnessed didn’t align with that narrative. He saw droves of Hussein’s elite troops surrendering to CNN camera crews in empty tanks. He realized then that officials had greatly exaggerated the danger.
The White House summoned Duncan in efforts to sway his opinion. Duncan told national security chief Condoleezza Rice that Lawrence Lindsey, head economic adviser, estimated that war with Iraq would cost $200 billion. Rice responded that it would not be nearly that much, maybe $50 or $60 billion. They could also get some of that back from their allies, she said.
He was not convinced.
“Since you’re going against every traditional conservative value with huge deficit spending, massive foreign aid and the U.S. being policemen of the world, and you’re going there to enforce U.N. resolutions and conservatives have been the biggest critics of the U.N., do you have any evidence of any imminent threat?” he asked.
Evidence was scant, a fact George Tenet confirmed in a speech at Georgetown after resigning from the CIA, Duncan said.
The night before the vote, 9 percent of Duncan’s constituents opposed the war. The first three to four years after that were difficult. A Baptist church disinvited Duncan from a speaking engagement; a candidate ran against him solely on the war. But then things started to turn around.
“Slowly what had been by far my most unpopular vote started to become my most popular vote,” Duncan said.
Since then, he has spoken out against continued American occupation in the Middle East.
“I think it’s just very sad that we’ve spent trillions now in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Duncan said. “I was speaking out long before Trump was saying we need to start putting our own country and our own people first.”
Duncan says he is especially proud to be consistently ranked one of the most fiscally conservative members of Congress.
But that fiscal conservatism might not translate to campaign finance for Duncan. The House Ethics Committee has probed whether he misused tens of thousands of dollars on personal expenses, including for membership to a private club in Knoxville and for private events such as showers, engagement parties and dinners, according to the Wall Street Journal.
In April a House Ethics report concluded there is “substantial reason” to believe Duncan may have violated House ethics rules and federal law, but stressed that the investigation was ongoing, according to Knox News.
Duncan first took over the seat from his father in 1988, after John Duncan Sr. developed prostate cancer in office. Knowing his father wouldn’t be able to complete another term, Duncan Jr. decided to run. His father died months before the election and didn’t get to see his son take the seat.
He was the “kindest, sweetest, toughest, hardest-working man I ever knew,” the younger Duncan said.
Long before that, Duncan had contracted a passion for politics. In high school, he attended the 1964 Republican National Convention while his father ran for Congress. He traveled 77 hours by train to attend as an honorary assistant sergeant-at-arms and dreamt of succeeding his father in Congress.
“You can’t get any lower than being an honorary assistant, but I got into the convention,” Duncan said.
From there, he graduated from University of Tennessee at Knoxville and worked as a reporter.
“I majored in journalism back when nobody majored in journalism, and there were over a 1,000 more newspapers than there are now. It was easy to get a job,” he said.
He then went to law school at George Washington University before returning to Tennessee to serve as a lawyer, and later a judge.
He often quotes former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen: “The greatest threat to our national security is our national debt.”
“I was brought up by a mother and father that grew up during the Depression so they raised me to rather sleep on the floor than sleep on the bed that’s not paid for,” he explained.
Correction 3:21 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misstated the district represented by Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. and the Republicans who voted against the Iraq War.